Dawkins (b. 1941), having written best-sellers on his favorite subjects including evolutionary biology (The Selfish Gene, 1976) and atheism (The God Delusion, 2006), turns to the traditional autobiography.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, the author grew up in a happy family, his father an agricultural specialist in the British Colonial Service who returned to England in 1949. Dawkins delivers an amusing and thoughtful if often unflattering account of himself during his education at upper-class British prep schools. “I cannot deny a measure of unearned privilege when I compare my childhood, boyhood and youth to others less fortunate,” he writes. “I do not apologize for that privilege any more than a man should apologize for his genes or his face, but I am very conscious of it.” Entirely submissive to peer pressure, he enjoyed bullying unpopular classmates and pretended to know less than he did because academic achievement was scorned. Despite this unprepossessing background, he was admitted to Balliol, the most prestigious Oxford college, where he studied animal behavior under the inspiring Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen. After a decade of intense research and deliberation, Dawkins narrowed his focus to the genes that produce this animal behavior, which led to his groundbreaking theory that it is genes, not the organism, that govern evolution. This remains controversial, but it propelled him to a flourishing career as a scientist, educator and media personality, although the media (but not this book) emphasizes his atheism over his scientific accomplishments.
After delivering an entertaining account of his not-terribly-arduous youth and progression up the ladder of scientific academia, Dawkins ends with the publication of The Selfish Gene, but most readers will eagerly anticipate a concluding volume.